Paul Beatty, celebrated as the first American to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, appeared in an onstage interview at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia on Friday. But when the conversation turned to race, things got heated.
ABC Radio National host Michael Cathcart, who is white, was blasted on social media after the awkward exchange that followed his quotation of a phrase from Beatty's award-winning novel — "The Sellout" is a racial satire set in South Los Angeles — that contained the N-word, the Guardian reports.
Cathcart used the word in a question to Beatty about one of the novel's characters who is described as an "[N-word] whisperer," which the host added was "a term which most decent white folks in the U.S. would never dare say."
"What the dickens is a [N-word] whisperer?" Cathcart asked Beatty.
"Somebody else asked me this," Beatty replied. "Only in Australia has this question come up twice, actually."
"Well, we don't know," Cathcart said, to which Beatty responded, "Ah, yes, you do."
The interview got more awkward from there, with Cathcart asking: "Do you think that people become black? Do they have to learn what it means to be black?"
Beatty, becoming impatient and punctuating his answer with profanity, replied: "Ask yourself the ... question, man. … Just think about it for a ... second. Did you learn to be white?"
"I believe that in my life I have learned to be white in different ways, and that I've become less interested in the notion of being white," Cathcart responded. "So I think of myself just as a person. I think I have learned not to be white."
Those who watched the Cathcart interview took to Twitter to blast the Australian journalist for what many considered tone-deaf questions.
"The Sellout," which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is about an African American farmer in a fictitious South Los Angeles suburb who lobbies to bring back slavery and racial segregation.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, critic Kiese Laymon wrote that Beatty's book "is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century."
Cathcart told the Guardian that his question about learning to be black was a "miscalculation."